The sound of my squad boss’s voice invaded my sleep. “Spot fire! Spot fire! Get up! Hustle! Hustle!” I pried open my eyes and tried to orient myself. I was lying in the ash of a forest fire, curved for warmth around a small, smoldering stump. Around me members of my elite Pike Hotshot Crew rubbed their eyes and pulled on their packs as they lurched to their feet. I glanced at my watch. It was 6 am. Other than the brief nap we’d just had, my crew and I had been working to fight a raging wildfire on the Angeles National Forest for 24 hours straight.
I jumped to my feet and joined the line of my crew members hiking hard and fast towards a large spot fire that had sprung up in a flat of manzanita, a tangled, fast burning brush native to California. If we didn’t dig a fireline around the spot fire in a hurry, the fire would likely explode, and there was no safety zone we could retreat to easily.
Another day in my life as a wildland firefighter had just begun.
When I arrived to start work as a wildland firefighter on the Pike Hotshot Crew, I had only been camping a couple of times. I’d rarely gone more than two days without a shower. I didn’t even know how to dry brush my teeth. I knew that soon I would hike up and down mountains towards raging wildfires with a 40 lbs. pack on my back. I would suck smoke, and dig fireline for 15 hours a day, and sleep in the ash. I would go two weeks at a time without a shower. I would spend every waking moment with my crewmembers. I knew a little bit of what I was in for, and I was excited and afraid.
When I parked my car at the Pike Fire Center, a cluster of old cabins built in the mountains of the Pike National Forest in Colorado, I was nervous as hell. As I stepped out of the car I heard voices yelling at me, “Make way for the rookie! Rookie on the deck!”
I glanced around, but saw no one — just a life-sized Smokey the Bear cutout that said, “Welcome to the Pike Interagency Hotshot Crew.” Whoever was yelling at me was doing so from the cover of the old wooden buildings surrounding me. I took a deep breath and headed for the bunkhouse, where I would live with the other members of my crew for the next two fire seasons.
When I met my fellow hotshots, the men barely lifted their chins at me. Most couldn’t be bothered to even say, “Hey.” They looked me over, and their looks said, “We’ll see how you do.”
Most of them were from rural Colorado or Wyoming. They had grown up out in the woods. They dipped tobacco and drank Coors. They knew how to swing a Pulaski and run a chainsaw. They could gut a deer, and start a campfire with no matches. I, on the other hand, grew up in Austin, Texas — a hipster and hippie haven — and had just graduated from a small liberal arts college. I loved Kathleen Hanna and films by Jim Jarmusch, novels by Virginia Woolf and micro-brew.
And I was a woman — I would be one of only three women on the 20-person crew that year. All-male crews were generally considered tougher than crews that included a female or two. The hotshots did not give me a warm welcome.
But let me make it clear: No one arriving on a hotshot crew — male or female — gets a warm welcome. Hotshot crews are clannish. The work is so dangerous that no hotshot wants someone on their crew who can’t handle the stress, demands, and dangers of the fireline.
“Hotshots are the best-trained and best-equipped wildland firefighters, sometimes referred to as the Navy SEALs of their profession,” says Rolling Stone magazine. The world of hotshotting is an insular, masculine and exhilarating place. Crewmembers have to trust each other with their lives on a daily basis. And so the guys on my crew wanted to wait and see what I was made of before they gave me even a smile of encouragement.
I’d trained hard, and so I held my own on the initial physical fitness tests. By the time we were called out to our first fire, my crew had seen me keep up on hard training hikes, dig some practice fireline (rather badly at first, but with enthusiasm), and get hammered with them at several crew parties.
I had not hooked up with any of them. Female friends with wildfire experience had warned me against beginning any sort of romantic involvement with a crewmember. A female hotshot may spend six months a year out in the woods with 18 hot-as-hell firefighters, but if she acts like she’s in her own private season of “The Bachelorette,” she’s going to lose their respect with the quickness. Were many of my crewmates ripped and beautiful and manly and sexy as hell? You bet. Did I pretend like I didn’t notice? Absolutely. In fact, I realized soon enough that I would fit in best if my crewmates more or less forgot I was a woman at all.
We finished our training and were soon dispatched to our first fire. After driving for hours through the night, we stopped and slept on the ground outside of a Forest Service District Office for a few hours. We woke up before dawn. My teeth felt furry. I went in search of a bathroom and running water. When I came out of the district office, all four rigs were idling. Everyone was loaded up, waiting for me. I ran towards the rigs and jumped in. “What in the hell were you doing, rookie?” my crewmates asked.
“I was looking for a sink,” I said. “I needed to brush my teeth.” My crewmates gave me hell for that small fail for a long, long time. And I was never late getting to the rigs again.
We arrived at fire camp as the sun began to rise. We loaded into helicopters that flew us up onto a mesa where a wildfire burned through the piñon juniper. We hiked in to the fire and got to work. The sawyers on my crew used their chainsaws to open up a 15-foot space in the tree canopy called a “sawline.” With the other diggers on my crew, I helped to dig a shallow trench or “fireline” underneath the sawline. I bent over and swung my fire tool, helping to scrape a 24-inch fireline. My hard hat tilted on my head, perilously close to falling off. Sweat ran stinging into my eyes. Within 15 minutes, I was desperately out of breath, and felt like I might keel over.
In the following days, the palms of my hands blistered. My entire crew was doused with fire retardant dropped by a “slurry bomber” airplane. We were covered in sweat and dirt and ash, and none of us got a shower. And one afternoon we had to run full speed to our safety zone to escape the 200-foot flames crowning through the treetops. For at least 12 hours a day, I swung my fire tool, and at night I lay on the ground in my sleeping bag— not even bothering to put up a tent — and I slept like the dead.
But a few days into the work, I began to find my rhythm.
In my two seasons on the hotshot crew, my crewmates and I often saved each others’ lives — so often that it was sometimes not even commented on after the fact. We did so by calling out when a burning tree crashed to the ground unexpectedly, by yelling for someone to get out of the way of a falling boulder. If one of us tripped and fell into a stand of burning chaparral, someone else would yank the fallen back to his or her feet before s/he was burned.
Once, when I was pushing over a tree stump that my friend Mark O’Shea was cutting with a chainsaw, I lost my balance and fell with my arms outstretched toward the roaring saw blade. Both of my hands would have been cut off by the chainsaw if O’Shea had not thrown the saw away from us.
The danger that my crewmates and I survived together bonded us. And we grew to love each other. And I got used to basically being a dude. My hotshot buddies would cut warts off my leg with a Leatherman, or ask me how my crap in the woods had gone. And I’d tell them.
Once I was accepted by my crewmates, I did eventually break the golden rule of firefighting and hooked up with one of my buddies (albeit discretely). While it caused ripples of teasing and even some disdain, it didn’t essentially capsize my standing on the crew.
When I left the crew after two years, it was in part because I wanted to hunker down and write a novel inspired by the adventures we had together, and by the challenges of finding a place of belonging as a woman on a hotshot crew. My novel “Wildfire” has just been published, and is dedicated to my friends on my crew. (“Wildfire” has been optioned for film as well, and I’ve written the script. I’ve found out that that only 10% of screenwriters of major motion pictures are female — probably even less than the percentage of female hotshots fighting wildfires. And that’s something we got to change.)
If my life falls apart tomorrow, and I find myself in need of shelter and support, I know that I could show up on the doorstep of a friend with whom I fought fire. I know that he and his wife would take me in. And that’s a sort of miracle.
Mary Pauline Lowry is an author living in Southern California.